Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified a Danish marathon organizer as Albatross Travel. The Danish competitor to Marathon Tours and Travel is called Adventure Marathon; it is run by Albatros Travel. This version has been updated.
Ahhh, the South Pole in summer. The temperature climbs toward 30 degrees, the winds calm to a gentle 40 mph, the ice melts a bit, leaving a thick muck that clings like cement. Chamber of Commerce weather.
But not even the Chamber of Commerce, if there were one, would be foolish enough to invite people from all over the world to run 26.2 miles in such conditions on the steep hills of King George Island, Antarctica. For that you would need a group of particularly adventuresome souls willing — no, eager — to fly to the tip of South America and spend two days at sea before going ashore to run the Antarctica Marathon.
They would be people like Brooke Curran, 43, of Alexandria, who won the women’s race last month in weather more fit for the penguins and seals that populate the Fildes Peninsula than for the humans who wrapped themselves in high-tech apparel against the 6-degree wind chill.
“In Antarctica terms, we had good weather,” said Curran, back in the comfort of a Del Ray coffeehouse where we chatted about her adventure. By any other standard, it was miserable. “It was mud, it was hills, it was streams, it was slick, it was windy. It was sleet. It was snow. More wind.” She wore thick tights, a heavy winter running top, a wind- and water-repellent shell and two pairs of gloves with chemical hand warmers in the fingertips.
Curran has broken 3:10, but in Antarctica her 4:36:53 was good enough to defeat about 40 other women and all but the first 10 men. “After seeing that first mile or two, I decided that for the rest of the race I was not going to run up those hills. I just walked the hills. And I kept track of where everyone was. And then I watched them start to slow and start to fade. And at Mile 16 or 17, I started to make my move.”
There is no Antarctica Marathon, of course — not in the sense that there is a Boston Marathon or a New York Marathon or a London Marathon. It and other exotic races are the creation of Boston-based Marathon Tours and Travel, whose founder, Thom Gilligan, realized serendipitously 19 years ago how far Type A distance runners would go in pursuit of their goals. “These are people who take the reins and ride life hard. They’re not afraid to take some risk and live life to the fullest,” Gilligan said.
In 1993, Gilligan was quoted in a travel trade magazine saying that he could take runners to every continent except Antarctica. Two days later, an outfit that specialized in Zodiac boat tours of the area contacted him about conquering that last frontier. They decided to set it up for 1995.
“I was hoping for 30 people,” Gilligan said. “We got 110 deposits in 60 days.” Today, the Antarctica Marathon is sold out for 2013, 2014 and 2015, and accepting applications for 2016. There is now a Great Wall marathon (yes, you run parts of the Chinese landmark) and a marathon through a Kenyan game park, among others. The company has a few serious competitors in this niche market, including San Diego-based Kathy Loper Events and Adventure Marathon in Denmark.
The Antarctica race’s 100 or so runners live aboard a converted Russian research ship. For $7,500 to $9,500, plus airfare, they spend two weeks in South America and Antarctica as tourists before and after they run their dream marathons on a rugged course marked by small red flags. About the only other people on that part of the peninsula work in research bases belonging to Uruguay, Chile, China and Russia (four Chilean scientists ran the half-marathon this year).
In this climate, there are no guarantees. In 2001, the seas were too rough for the small inflatable boats that take the runners ashore, just a kilometer away. The marathon was run aboard the ship: 442 laps around Deck 6, Gilligan said. Another year the race went off in a blizzard. Runners thanked Gilligan for that experience.
Curran, whose husband, Christopher, is an attorney in the District, began running short distances as a stay-at-home mother of three daughters about 15 years ago. Then the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. “I heard the sonic boom, I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. I was sitting there with my three girls. . . . It’s an ‘aha’ sort of moment where all of a sudden you realize the fragility of life. You realize how short life is.”
She worked her way into terrific shape, lowering her time until she realized that wasn’t the whole answer either. “The better I got, the faster, the less it meant to me,” she said. “And it got to where it meant nothing to me. I would train for four or five months and I would feel empty at the finish line.”
Curran decided to couple her efforts with fundraising, and she founded RunningBrooke, (www.runningbrooke.com), which reports raising $110,000 in three years for five local charities that support working poor families and children.
She also is on a personal quest to join an exclusive club of marathoners who have completed one race on each of seven continents and in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Curran said she has run on six continents, with only Africa to go, as well as 33 states and the District. She runs one marathon a month and hopes to do a marathon in Africa next year.
“All I want to do is inspire you, my neighbors, to get involved in our community,” she said. “. . . That’s why I was in Antarctica. It was super cool. Really glad I went. But it wasn’t really for me.”